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The U.S. Is On Track To Miss May 1 Deadline To Pull All Troops Out Of Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban last year. The Taliban were supposed to cut ties with groups like al-Qaida, stop attacking U.S. troops and engage in dialogue with the Afghan government. In return, the U.S. promised to pull out troops, all troops, by May 1 of this year. Now President Biden is suggesting the U.S. may not meet that deadline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm in the process of making that decision now as to when they'll leave. The fact is that - that was not a very solidly negotiated deal.

KELLY: President Biden speaking there yesterday on ABC. Well, to understand what is going on here, we are joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And NPR's Diaa Hadid from Islamabad - she covers Afghanistan for us. Hey, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Diaa, I'm going to let you start because it feels critical to start with just what is actually happening on the ground in Afghanistan right now. How are things there?

HADID: Right. Well, the Taliban are actually looking stronger than ever. Reports indicate they're controlling more main roads around the country. And in the cities, which are ostensibly under government control, there's this continuing pattern of targeted assassinations, and over 700 people have been killed that way in the past few months. And just in the past week, militants have also begun attacking government buses. They're used by employees to ferry them around the city. In one incident, a bombing killed four female employees and a child. One of those women was heavily pregnant, and that child was her toddler.

KELLY: That's unimaginably awful. So the violence is bad and it sounds like getting worse. What about these talks we mentioned - ongoing talks that are supposed to be happening between the Afghan government and the Taliban?

HADID: Right. Well, they've actually been moving quite slowly since they began in September, which appears to have hampered the withdrawal of more American forces from the country. And now the Biden team is engaging in this flurry of diplomatic activity. Today they attended - they sent an envoy to attend an Afghan peace conference in Moscow. They're hoping to hold two more conferences. It appears that they've greenlit a move by the UN to appoint a special envoy for Afghan peace.

And the end goal of all this, as far as we understand, is that the Biden administration wants the Afghan government to form some sort of transitional body with the Taliban, and they want the Taliban to accept a comprehensive cease-fire. Now, if those things look like they're clicking into place, the administration will be in a stronger position to withdraw the remaining forces from Afghanistan.

KELLY: Although, of course, all kinds of questions about what the Afghan government is going to do. But, Tom, let me bring you in here with the U.S. stake. How many troops does the U.S. have in Afghanistan right now?

BOWMAN: Well, Mary Louise, officially, the U.S. has 2,500 troops, but The New York Times has reported the actual number is around 3,500 because you have additional special operations forces who are off the books, working for the CIA or are there for temporary periods of time. There are also another 7,000 NATO troops, so a lot less than years ago when I would go there and you have tens of thousands of U.S. troops. But American military officials say they still have enough - just enough troops to train Afghan forces at the higher unit levels and also go after ISIS and al-Qaida.

KELLY: And do we have any more detail on this suggestion from President Biden that the U.S. might not pull all of its forces out by this May 1 deadline? Do we know when they would leave, when we might get a decision?

BOWMAN: No. And everyone, Mary Louise, from Congress to NATO to the Afghan government is asking that same question. And the answer will obviously come soon. The sense is the U.S. will not leave on May 1, as the president hinted, and because military officials have said the Taliban have not lived up to the agreement to break with al-Qaida. And also, they were threatening the cities, which some say is also against the agreement. And the president said if the deadline were extended, it would not be by, quote, "a lot longer." So what does that mean? A month, six months, longer than that?

The big challenge is getting both sides to agree to what Biden wants - an interim government, a transitional government, as Diaa said, and a cease-fire by the Taliban. The Afghan government is opposed to an interim government. The Taliban has not shown a willingness to a broad cease-fire unless they can share power and all foreign troops leave.

KELLY: Diaa, what's the view from Afghanistan? How are Afghans reacting to this news that maybe the U.S. is not going to be all out by May 1?

HADID: I think mainly, Afghans feel relieved because without a solid peace agreement, the withdrawal of foreign forces could cause Afghanistan to plunge deeper into war or even cause the state to collapse. And I spoke to one of the Afghan peace negotiators, Fawzia Koofi, and she says, frankly, they expected the delay, and she blames the Taliban. She says if they wanted that withdrawal so badly, they should have worked harder to negotiate peace. Have a listen.

FAWZIA KOOFI: If the Taliban were really in favor of troops withdrawal, well, they should have stayed committed to the Doha Agreement in terms of reduction of violence, in terms of speeding up and bringing some sincerity and some genuine kind of discussion into the negotiation table. This was something that they did not demonstrate. In fact, it took three months to just finalize the rules of procedures.

HADID: Three months just for rules and procedures. But the concern going forward is that the Biden administration might push both sides into a hastily shackled deal, and Afghans say that just simply won't last, and all the gains they've made over the past two decades with an enormous amount of American involvement, money and blood might just fall apart. And that includes all the gains on women's rights.

I just want to say - and Koofi's parting thought was this. Americans are understandably impatient to leave Afghanistan, and Afghans are impatient for peace, but she says you just can't rush that.

KELLY: What does the Taliban say, though? What has been their reaction to the U.S. maybe not leaving by May 1?

HADID: Right. Well, so far they say they're watching and waiting. And experts like Andrew Watkins from the International Crisis Group, who follows the Taliban, says their response likely depends on whether they're being assuaged by the Americans that they're still serious about withdrawing. Have a listen.

ANDREW WATKINS: Depending on how the issue has been handled quietly behind closed doors between American and Taliban negotiators will probably guide how the Taliban actually reacts and responds.

HADID: And we'll get a clearer sense of that in the next few weeks.

BOWMAN: The concern is that if the American troops don't leave by the 1st of May, they could be targeted once again by the Taliban. Right now, the Taliban's going after Afghan soldiers and police, and that's resulting in thousands of casualties. If the Taliban attacks U.S. forces, military officials tell me the Americans will hit them very hard with airstrikes.

Now, here's the thing. The Taliban may be content by the renewed and intensive diplomatic push by Biden because they might see it as in their overall interest. And clearly, the president wants to get out, and that's what the Taliban want as well. Mary Louise, it seems like we're at an inflection point - again, a hard diplomatic push by Joe Biden. Clearly he wants to leave.

KELLY: It feels like this has been the challenge for any number of U.S. administrations you and I have covered, Tom. It is hard to leave.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

KELLY: It is hard to stay.

NPR's Tom Bowman reporting on the Pentagon from here in Washington, and NPR's Diaa Hadid covering Afghanistan from across the border in Islamabad, Pakistan. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

HADID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PECAS SONG, "T-SHIRT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.